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In our prior posts we talked about three things:
1) Stewardship or how we use our possessions is part of the sanctified life. Christians strive to be faithful in their walk with God.
2) A key part of faithfulness in stewardship is the concept of “firstfruits”. The offering to God comes from the first part, not the remainder.
3) The final goal of stewardship is for Christians to recognize and trust God’s providence.
Now in this post I promised to look at some brass tacks. One of the toughest words to mention in many churches is tithe. What is a tithe and why is it so contentious? Simply put, a tithe is a tenth or 10% of the income or increase in any given period. As we will see, in its original usages, the time period was usually a harvest season. Probably your grandfathers, could still relate to that. I remember my grandfather’s stories of bringing in the tithe at harvest season. For him that meant dropping a large check into the plate once a year after he had delivered the crop to the mill. He would joke about 90% of his rural church’s offerings coming in on three Sundays. By the end of his farming career with the advent of futures much of that had changed. More so with regular salaried work, but I do wonder given the increase in freelancing and other forms of self-employment if the next generations will look more periodic in income.
But none of that explains the source or purpose of a tithe. The Ur-stories or deep bedrock stories of the tithe come from Genesis. Abraham in Gen 14:20 is reported to have given a tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek – the priest of God Most High from Salem (Ur-Jerusalem). It is interesting the writer of the book of Hebrews in the new testament also mentions and interprets this story in Heb 7:1-10 where Melchizedek is a picture of Christ. So, the first recorded tithe is from Abraham – the father of all the faithful – to an obvious Christ figure. It was given as a recognition of victory and who the victory came from. The second Ur-story of the tithe is Gen 28:22. Jacob, on the run from Esau after tricking his Father, sees his vision of the ladder. But the real import is not that image but the promise and the response. God promises Jacob the same thing he had promised the other patriarchs – descendants, land, and blessing. When Jacob awakes he is a new person in regards to God. A boy who had grown up in the tents of the Patriarchs declares – “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it”. Jacob has received the promise and now believes it. The first thing Jacob does in the morning is build an altar and make a vow to return a tenth a tithe. The response of faith is worship and faithful stewardship. A tithe or 10% becomes a symbol of that faithfulness.
Now that isn’t the only place a tenth or a tithe appears. In Leviticus 27:30-34, as part of the Sinai covenant, God claims a tithe or a tenth of the grain and the tenth of the herd. Since everyone was a farmer or a herdsman that is a tenth of all produce. This tithe was given to the Levites – the priest clan. Levi did not receive an allotment of land when Israel entered, but instead lived dispersed as the local priests. (This is found in Numbers 18:20-32). The Levites themselves were not spared the tithe. They gave 10% to the Aaronic (what would become the Temple) priesthood. Also look at Deut 14:22-29 where some regulations regarding the tithe are put in place. At the initial gift all Israel shares a festival meal. The remains (i.e. the majority) is for the Levites. But, every third year, from that tenth the Levites were to care for the aliens, the fatherless and the widows. Unlike the tithes of Abraham and Jacob, these tithes were part of the Law of Sinai.
None of that mentions the offerings commanded as part of the sacrificial system. Those are listed in the first 5 chapters of Leviticus: Burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. Those were in addition to the Levitical tithe and were given directly to the temple. They were also largely consumed in the altar fire, although parts would be saved for the temple priests.
So, that is an OT overview of tithes. When stewardship is being talked about, churches talk about tithes because it is deeply grounded in the Old Testament. We take the law as the way that God intended things to be. We cannot fulfill the law, but it is still good and wise. The law demands a tenth of the income for God. Read Malachi 3:1-12 to get a glimpse, even at a late prophetic date, what God felt about those tithes. Not bringing them in was stealing from God. So the tithe was a part of the law, but it was also a part of the gospel. Abraham was not commanded to give 10%, nor was Jacob. Both freely brought 10% as a response to the grace of God.
There are a bunch of smaller questions regarding the tithe that often get asked. A popular one: Is it on the gross or the net? That makes sense in a modern salary world. And you can read about God warning about a second tenth being taken by the government in 1 Samuel 8:15-17, but that Kings’ tithe doesn’t remove the responsibility for God’s tithe. The OT tithe is clearly talking about the full harvest or the gross. 10% would be given to God, some would be taken in taxes, some would need to be set aside as seed for the following year and the rest consumed.
I’ve gone exceedingly long here, so I will continue next time with a new testament view. Review Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira, take a quick look at Matt 23:23, but focus on 2 Cor 8-9, with the core passage being 2 Cor 9:6-11.